Development, Retrofitting 1st Targets For New Jacksonville Resiliency Committee

Feb 15, 2019

Jacksonville’s new Storm Resiliency and Infrastructure Development Review Committee met for the first time Friday afternoon and members agreed their first order of business will be to take a look at the rules and regulations surrounding new developments in the city and how to retrofit existing infrastructure.

Chair and Chief Administrative Officer for the City of Jacksonville Sam Mousa opened the meeting by suggesting the committee start out by aiming for what he called low hanging fruit - flood control, floodplain mitigation, wetland mitigation, new developments and existing infrastructure - and asking members for their input and advice.

“We want to pick your brains on what we can do to improve our designs on both new development and retrofitting,” he told Storm Resiliency and Infrastructure Development Review Committee members gathered in the Mayor’s conference room at city hall on Friday afternoon.

Related: Environmentalists Cautiously Optimistic About New Jax Committee On Sea Level Rise

“I have learned that some other jurisdictions in the state have - by making some regulatory changes in their local code, whether it’s building codes or flood plain management or other things - achieved better CRS ratings, which in turn have resulted in lower flood insurance premiums for all their citizens,” said Councilwoman and committee member Lori Boyer, referring to FEMA’s Community Rating System (CRS).

“So I think that there’s a potential economic benefit to be gained from this as well as the sustainability and resiliency for the city,” she went on to say. “Part of what we want is your feedback on what you are looking for us to do to put us in those categories.”

Mark Evans, a Senior Project Manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the city raising its infrastructure and development requirements may be the most beneficial approach for the community.

“We can give our expertise, we can recommend stronger stringencies towards wetland development - which is that natural barrier to flooding - but, for a lot of it, our hands are tied with what we can say can and cannot be done,” he explained. “If a developer comes to us and they observe the regulations, we’re stuck giving a permit.”

“We understand,” replied Mousa. “But our permit could be more stringent than yours.”

“Right, and I think that’s maybe one of the prime ways our input can assist you,” said Evans.

“That’s what we’re looking for,” said Mousa. “That’s the kind of feedback we’re looking for.”

But Mousa stressed that the city doesn’t want to make it more difficult, or more expensive, to buy new homes or to develop.

“We’ve got to keep the economic impact of all of this reasonable,” he stressed.

Evans requested that the city put together a presentation on specific areas and developments that are more at risk going forward or that have already been impacted by flooding, storm surge or sea level rise, and suggested members of the public submit their own areas of concern.

Mousa asked his staff to start putting something together and asked representatives from all the regulatory agencies in attendance to craft their own presentations.

“So what I would like to hear is a short briefing from each agency [at the] next meeting as to what it is you look at when you’re reviewing either retrofitting or new development,” Mousa explained.

He hopes the city might be able to use that information to improve its own new development design criteria.

“Let’s keep in mind, these criteria were set many years ago,” he said. “Things have changed.”

During the public comment section, Riverside resident Jim Seaton said he’s concerned the committee seemed to be taking such a narrow focus.

“Are we just looking at today?” Seaton asked. “Or are we looking ahead, too? And if we are, we probably need to have some agreed upon figure that we’re looking at.”

“Figure in which way?” Mousa asked.

“Sea level rise,” Seaton answered. “What’s expected.”

Seaton went on to say he was happy Mousa decided to bring a representative from JEA into the committee, but he recommended they get someone from the insurance industry involved as well.

In response to Seaton’s concerns, Mousa said he hoped the committee would expand its scope as time goes on.

“I didn’t want to load up the table up front,” he said. “We want to try to take it one step at a time, as quickly as we can and expand it.”

“I think the place to begin is by setting the goalposts,” said Dr. Todd Sack, another Jacksonville resident who spoke up during the public comment portion. “One foot elevation of sea level, three foot elevation of sea level or five foot. I think we need to begin with the science.”

Sack said he’s concerned that there are too many local government committees looking at this problem in Jacksonville - this committee, the Adaptation Action Area (AAA) Working Group and the Northeast Florida Regional Council’s Public Private Regional Resiliency Committee (P2R2).

“There may be another commision being started by the beaches’ mayors, there’s a group in St. Augustine also in government and then multiple organizations outside of government have looked at this,” he said. “We need to have a comprehensive look at this without the redundancy.”

“And we need to look at it comprehensively, meaning not just flooding, but other public health concerns,” Dr. Sack went on to say. “The heat events that will strike us, are we prepared? The infectious disease risks, the mental health risks…”

He also recommended the committee look beyond the symptoms and address the root cause of these issues.

“The disease is climate change,” said Dr. Sack. “We know that carbon dioxide levels have not been at this level for millions of years and we know that they’re man made. We can, as a city, benefit economically by rolling up our sleeves and creating the jobs to invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency.”

Lisa Rinaman, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, also spoke to the committee during public comment, echoing the concerns expressed before her.

“To truly be resilient I think we have to look at future conditions and not current conditions,” she said. “In early 2018 the Army Corps came out with a report saying within the next five to seven years there’ll be a 12 percent increase in water levels during high frequency storms.”

“I think those baselines would be something we would appreciate this committee addressing to make sure we understand what the goal is in realizing how we can plan better for water that we see rising,” said Rinaman.

“In downtown Jacksonville, since the 1970s, there’s been a five inch increase in water levels,” she explained to the committee. “That’s significant in an area that’s so flat. So I appreciate the beginning of conversation here and I hope it will be expanded.”

“We need to keep this in mind,” Mousa warned. “We’re a flat area, we have water all over us - we have water on the coast and we have a river that runs right through the center of our county. So not everything is going to be solved. It’s just not going to happen.”

“I will ask the public, if there’s anything that you believe this committee should consider, should take up, you’ll email those suggestions to any committee member,” Mousa said to close the meeting. Suggestions can be emailed to Marlene Russell at MarleneR@coj.net.

At Mousa’s request, the committee agreed to meet at City Hall every other Friday from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. until their work is done. “We’d like to conclude our work by the end of June,” Mousa said.

Every committee meeting is open to the public and will include time for public comment.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.